RICHMOND — The Democratic state senator who almost helped Republicans win a bitter judicial-nomination battle this week said she rebelled against Gov. Terry McAuliffe and his allies because she believes that leaders of her party have ignored black lawmakers’ concerns.
Sen. L. Louise Lucas (Portsmouth) said her short-lived alliance with the GOP had little to do with who sits on the bench.
Instead, she said, her move grew out of long-simmering grievances with fellow Senate Democrats, who she said have passed over black senators for key committee slots, taken their votes for granted, and left them to fend for themselves in partisan and personal battles with Republicans.
“I’m getting tired of being treated like I’m invisible,” Lucas said in an emotional interview with The Washington Post and the Virginian-Pilot. “It’s always just, ‘You sit there and you be good, and just vote with us and we’ll take care of you.’ Well, I didn’t get elected to do that.”
Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said he has pushed hard for Lucas and the rest of the black caucus while juggling many other responsibilities.
“It’s no state secret — I can be a little insensitive from time to time,” Saslaw said. “Sometimes people feel ignored. . . . [But] I have an impeccable civil rights voting record. I’ve done a lot of things behind the scenes, prevented a lot of bad things from happening. Sometimes, people don’t see that.”
Lucas’s brief break from the Democrats ultimately did not affect Richmond’s protracted tug of war over a Supreme Court slot, which is back to a stalemate. But the incident exposed a painful racial fissure within the Democratic caucus. The rift comes at a particularly awkward time for McAuliffe (D), who is trying to persuade the same minority-heavy coalition that twice played a key role in electing President Obama to back the governor’s close friend Hillary Clinton in the March 1 presidential primary.
Yet there was some upside for McAuliffe, too. Lucas credited him for taking her complaints seriously and summoning party leaders to his office Wednesday in an attempt to work them out. He also talked Lucas out of helping the GOP replace his pick for the high court, at least temporarily heading off a humiliating loss.
Part of her frustration with Saslaw, Lucas said, comes from what she called an unwillingness to help resolve a long-running battle between her and Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City). She described Saslaw’s relationship with Norment as “cozy, cozy.”
In explaining the underlying beef with Norment, Lucas described a profane verbal clash that took place three years ago in a private lounge just off the ornate Senate floor. She also recalled a fight in another Senate anteroom between herself and another female Democrat, which she said nearly turned physical.
Both accounts present a sharp break from the seemingly genteel operations of Richmond’s upper chamber, where senators observe strict protocol even during fiercely partisan debates. Norment, in particular, usually stands as a symbol of that gentility, enforcing arcane rules and speaking old-fashioned flourishes. He is known for sporting formal three-piece suits and bright-pink ties.
But Lucas said he was far from courtly three years ago, when she asked him why he would not appoint her to a panel studying Hampton Roads transportation, a top concern in her traffic-choked district.
“Tommy said, ‘The reason why I don’t want to vote for you is because you ain’t gonna do s---,’ ” Lucas said. “And I said, ‘Just watch my black ass.’ . . . And he says, ‘I don’t want to watch your black ass.’ And I said, ‘Well, then: You keep your little, narrow white ass, little J.C. Penney-little-boys’-department-wearing-suits out of my [expletive] face.’ ”
Lucas said that Saslaw walked in on the argument, and she called him over. Instead of getting involved, she said, “he makes a beeline out.”
Through a spokesman, Norment called Lucas’s account “a prevarication.” He said that he put himself on the transportation panel, instead of Lucas, because it lacked representation from the area he serves.
Lucas also described nearly coming to blows years ago with Sen. Janet D. Howell after the Fairfax Democrat chastised her. “She said, ‘Where were you when I needed your vote?’ ” Lucas recalled. “And I said, ‘When did I become your [expletive] servant?’ ” The argument, which began in the chamber, grew so loud that the Senate clerk shooed them into a back room, Lucas said.
Howell did not respond to a request for comment about the incident.
Such clashes, Lucas said, added to the frustration she feels as a result of a succession of perceived slights by other lawmakers. She noted, for example, that she and Howell joined the Senate the same day in 1992 but that Howell, who is white, landed a seat on the prestigious finance committee many years before Lucas did.
On Tuesday, Lucas heard a rumor that another Senate Democrat was going to back the GOP’s pick for the Supreme Court — Appeals Court Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr. — in exchange for getting to elevate a judge from that lawmaker’s district to Alston’s current slot. McAuliffe and the GOP had been battling for weeks over the court seat, and the defection of a single Democratic senator meant the Republicans would win.
Lucas wondered why deals like that never seemed to come her way. She found herself talking to Norment, her old GOP nemesis. In the end, she said, she agreed to give her own vote to the GOP, as long as a judge she supported from Portsmouth — Circuit Court Judge Kenneth R. Melvin — would get to replace Alston.
As news of her defection spread, McAuliffe called Lucas in for a meeting. Soon afterward, the senator issued a statement saying that Melvin was not interested in a promotion. She was back in the Democratic fold.
On Wednesday morning, McAuliffe brought in Howell, Saslaw and the Democratic caucus chairman, Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico), to meet with Lucas and Sen. Mamie E. Locke (D-Hampton), an ally of Lucas’s who is also in the Senate’s five-member black caucus.
“I said [to Saslaw], ‘If I’ve got to work my own deals because I can’t get you to resolve the differences between us . . . ,’ ” Lucas recalled in the interview, her voice trailing off, eyes welling. “But it was the wrong time, wasn’t it? I picked the wrong thing.”
Lucas said she has complained over the years not just to Saslaw but also to McEachin, who is black. She said that McEachin has listened but, working through Saslaw, has been unable to help. Through an aide, McEachin declined to comment on internal caucus matters.
Saslaw said he had tried to help Lucas advance in a chamber where party control has switched back and forth in recent years. “The only time we’ve had committee assignments since I’ve been in leadership was in January 2008, and she got put on Finance then,” he said. “I made things happen for her.”
Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-Arlington) called Saslaw “a very decent and fair leader. His values are in the right place. . . . You don’t want to be in a foxhole with anybody else but Dick Saslaw.”